In The Nation, Jehangir Pocha writes about the status of workers and the labor union movement in China:
Global consumers buying $25 Chinese-made DVD players usually assume Chinese labor is cheap because the country has a limitless supply of poor workers. But the morally cumbersome truth is that the Chinese government systematically prevents workers from being paid the full value of their labor. Chinese workers can join several state-controlled unions, but since the state and politically connected clans, or families, own most of the Chinese economy, official union representatives who work too zealously first get a warning smack on the wrist–then worse. Ask Kong Youping. After Kong, a trade union official in Liaoyang, raised the ire of local officials by fighting doggedly for the rights of recently laid-off workers, he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
This power imbalance between owners and workers in China means that almost 200 million Chinese workers go to bed every night in overcrowded dormitory rooms after having worked eighteen-hour days in Dickensian factories where some employees are literally worked to death. The phenomenon has even added a new word to the Mandarin vocabulary: guolaosi, or overwork death, where fatigued workers fall off their stools bleeding from the ears, nose and anus. [Full text]